Circumcision is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. Unfortunately, these falsehoods are often not corrected and explained to expectant parents. The following is a list of common myths about circumcision and the foreskin.
Myth: "Circumcision improves hygiene."
Fact: Circumcision was once believed to improve male hygiene, but current medical information shows this is not true. Circumcision does not make the penis any cleaner or healthier. Normal bathing and healthy hygiene are advised for all men, circumcised or not.
Myth: "Circumcision is medically necessary."
Fact: Circumcision is neither medically necessary nor beneficial. In fact, none of the medical organizations in the world recommend infant circumcision, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Medical Association (AMA). The current AAP policy on circumcision states 1) circumcision is not essential to a child's well-being, 2) it is an elective procedure, 3) medical professionals should not coerce parents into choosing circumcision, and 4) parents should make a fully informed decision that is in the best interest of the child (www.aap.org). The AMA endorses the AAP policy and calls circumcision 'non-therapeutic'.
Myth: "Circumcision is a harmless, simple procedure; it's just a little snip."
Fact: Newborn circumcision is a painful, traumatic procedure that amputates a large amount of erogenous and healthy tissue. It is often performed without giving the baby any pain relief. First, the boy is placed on his back on a plastic mold called a "circumstraint". The boy is then spread eagle and his arms and legs are strapped down so he can't struggle. The doctor then inserts a metal probe underneath the baby's foreskin, ripping it away from the glans (imagine a fingernail being pulled off a finger). At that point, the doctor uses one of several clamps and/or cutting devices to crush and amputate the foreskin. A video of the procedure can be found here: What Happens During Circumcision? (explicit content)
Myth: "Circumcision doesn't affect a man's ability to give or receive pleasure."
Fact: Circumcision decreases the pleasure experienced by both the man and woman during sex. The foreskin, which is amputated by circumcision, plays an important role in human sexuality.
For the man's benefit, the foreskin is the most sexually sensitive and pleasurable part of the penis. A specialized ring of tissue near the tip of the foreskin called the ridged band contains almost 20,000 highly sensitive erogenous nerve endings (over half of the sexually sensitive nerve endings in the penis). This special ridged band provides intact (uncircumcised) men with the majority of their sexual sensation. Circumcision amputates the entire ridged band and its erogenous nerve endings, resulting in a dramatic reduction in sexual sensation. It is a common misconception that the glans is the most sensitive part of the penis, because most adult men in America do not have a foreskin to compare to.
The foreskin also improves a woman's sensation and comfort during sex. During intercourse, the foreskin acts as a natural lubricant through its unique gliding or "rolling" motion. An intact penis slides back and forth inside the foreskin during the thrusting motions, greatly reducing friction (see Anatomy of the Penis, Mechanics of Intercourse for a full description). Because of this, most women report improved sensation with an intact penis (see Kristen O'Hara's book and Dr. Dean Edell's article on the study contained within the book). Many women that have had sex with circumcised men complain of vaginal dryness, lack of orgasms during intercourse, and even vaginal pain. The vagina was not designed to produce enough lubrication to accommodate a circumcised penis. Instead, the vagina was designed to leverage the natural penis's mechanical lubricating action provided by the foreskin. The sexual ramifications of circumcision are far reaching indeed.
Myth: "A boy should look like his father. If a boy and his father are different, it would be awkward."
Fact: Keep in mind that the father needn't have been circumcised in the first place. Still, a circumcised father may be concerned that his son will feel uncomfortable being "different" from his dad if he is not circumcised. Don't worry. Many circumcised fathers are raising intact sons without any feelings of awkwardness in father or son. If a boy ever notices and asks why his father is different, the reason is easily explained. A father should teach his son to appreciate and feel good about his own body. Good parenting is an excellent alternative to amputation. Besides, if the father had lost a finger in an accident earlier in his life, would he want to have his son's finger removed to match?
Myth: "Babies don't feel pain during circumcision."
Fact: Babies feel extreme pain during circumcision, according to studies referenced by the American Medical Association and others like this one referenced on CNN: Circumcision study halted due to trauma. In fact, some doctors have used circumcision as the definition of the most severe pain a baby can feel. Studies show that circumcision is intensely painful, and other studies show that babies are very sensitive to pain. Lastly, in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strenuously recommended that pain relief be administered during circumcision. Sadly, many circumcisions are still performed without pain relief according to this study cited by the AAP.
Myth: "Even if it does hurt, he won't remember it."
Fact: The fact that a boy won't consciously remember a traumatic event is not a valid justification for circumcision. If a 1-year-old baby falls and hits his head while learning to walk, a parent knows that the baby won't remember the incident, yet every parent will feel sympathy for and try to comfort their child. How is the pain of a medically unnecessary circumcision different?
Myth: "If circumcision hurts, a baby is still too young to be affected by it."
Fact: Studies are showing that events in early childhood and infancy affect our development a great deal. While few (if any) men consciously remember their circumcision, all men remember it subconsciously. The psychological effects of infant circumcision are serious, but they are often overlooked because they are so common in America. Infant circumcision is often a baby boy's first experience with his genitals. Pain and violence can become associated with his genitals, and therefore sex. This is extremely unhealthy and emotionally damaging. While circumcision affects each man differently, no man can avoid some kind of negative emotional effect.
Myth: "Male circumcision isn't anything like female circumcision."
Fact: Male circumcision, also known as Male Genital Mutilation (MGM), is very similar to female circumcision, also known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Both male and female circumcision decrease sexual pleasure, cause severe pain during the procedure, are performed without the consent of the individual being circumcised, are done for appearance and hygiene reasons, and are very harmful. See this page, FGM vs MGM, for an in-depth comparison of male and female circumcision. Of course, the AAP does not condone FGM. Also read this analysis of the difference in AAP policy between MGM and FGM.
Myth: "All circumcised men are perfectly happy that way."
Fact: Men who were circumcised at birth do not know what they are missing. They never had a foreskin, and so have never experienced the wonderful sensations a foreskin provides. This page, Why Most Circumcised Men Seem Satisfied, describes why many circumcised men seem ok with being circumcised. However, more and more men are realizing what they have lost due to circumcision, and are very unhappy about it. More and more parents are being confronted by their adult sons who disagree with their decision to have him circumcised when he was a baby.
Myth: "The Jews created circumcision so they would be cleaner."
Fact: With a review of the Old Testament, it is clear that the Jews adopted circumcision as a spiritual pact with God, and not for hygiene reasons. Nowhere in the Old Testament is circumcision referred to as being physically cleaner. It is referenced as a spiritual mark only, with no physical benefits, per se. For a Jewish perspective on circumcision, visit www.JewishCircumcision.org.
Myth: "Circumcision is a religious right."
Fact: The religious beliefs of the parents are not necessarily the same as the beliefs of the child once he becomes an adult. Parents should always keep in mind that their baby boy will one day be a grown man, with his own faith and spiritual beliefs.
Myth: "Circumcision is a part of Christianity."
Fact: The New Testament clearly states that circumcision has no spiritual value and should no longer be practiced by Christians. Catholics Against Circumcision and Peaceful Beginnings both provide excellent discussions of Christians and circumcision.
Acts 15:1-31 Paul speaks to the Apostles and Elders, telling them that God makes no distinction between circumcised men and uncircumcised men.
I Corinthians 7:18-20 "Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts. Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him."
Galatians 5:6 "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."
Galatians 6:15 "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation."
Colossians 3:11 "Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."
Myth: "My baby's foreskin won't retract (or is too tight), so he must be circumcised."
Fact: At birth, the foreskin is normally attached or fused to the glans (like the fingernail to the finger), and slowly separates as part of normal development until the child reaches puberty. The fact that a baby's foreskin won't retract is completely normal and healthy. As long as your baby can urinate, the foreskin is not too tight and is perfectly normal. A child whose foreskin is still attached to the glans and therefore cannot be retracted is sometimes mistakenly referred to as having "phimosis." Phimosis is a condition where an adolescent or adult's foreskin is too tight to retract past the glans, therefore, it is incorrect to say that an infant or very young child has phimosis. Phimosis can be treated with topical steroid creams and gentle stretching (see this link for a discussion of phimosis and treatment options).
Note: the foreskin should never be forcibly retracted before it's ready. The first person to retract a boy's foreskin should be the boy himself and no one else. It is not necessary for anyone to "check" under the foreskin. Premature retraction of the foreskin can cause bleeding, infection, and even skin adhesions.
Myth: "The foreskin is just a little flap of skin. Removing it is no big deal."
Fact: The foreskin is anything but a flap of skin. The foreskin is a double-sided tube of sexually sensitive skin and muscle that covers the glans, or head, of the penis. The foreskin is important for sex and for protecting the penis. The foreskin is mobile tissue, and by the time puberty is reached, it can be manually retracted or pulled back to expose the glans. The foreskin is the only moving part of male or female sexual anatomy. The foreskin is also quite large - when laid out, it's almost the size of your hand! In an adult, the foreskin is approximately 15 square inches in size, the same as a 3x5 note card (see Not a Snip, But 15 Square Inches and Not just a flap of skin).
Myth: "My son has a problem with his foreskin, so he has to be circumcised."
Fact: In the vast majority of cases, problems with the foreskin can be treated without resorting to amputation (circumcision). If your doctor recommends circumcision without first trying every conservative treatment available, protect your son from incorrect recommendations and find a new doctor that is more knowledgeable about intact male anatomy.
Myth: "If I don't have him circumcised as a baby, he will need to have it done later."
Fact: Medically necessary circumcisions later in life are very rare. Because circumcision is an amputation, the only absolute indications for circumcision are frostbite, severe infection, or cancer. All other "foreskin problems" can almost always be successfully treated using more conservative treatments.
Myth: "His foreskin will get infected if he's not circumcised."
Fact: The idea that the foreskin is prone to infection is not supported medically. The vast majority of men never have a problem with their foreskin. In the rare circumstance that the foreskin has an infection, it can usually be treated with topical creams and antibiotics. When any part of the body gets infected, the goal is to cure the infection. Amputation of the infected body part should always be the absolute last resort.
Myth: "Almost all men are circumcised."
Fact: The vast majority of men are intact (not circumcised). About 85% of men in the world are not circumcised, because America is the only country in the world that routinely circumcised for non-religious reasons. In places like Canada and Europe, circumcision is very rare (approximately 5% or less). In the US, circumcision rates were very high (90%) during the 1970s, but since then, circumcision rates have been decreasing. As of 2001, 50-60% of baby boys were circumcised in the US, but it varies by region. Current statistics can be found here.
Myth: "Circumcision has always been common."
Fact: Circumcision has actually been very rare throughout history. It was only in the 20th century that non-religious circumcision became common in certain areas, like the US. Circumcision was introduced in the US during the 1890s by people who thought that desensitizing the penis would curb masturbation (which was thought to cause insanity and many other diseases).
Myth: "An uncircumcised penis is gross."
Fact: The wives of billions of intact men abroad and the wives of millions of intact men in the US don't think so. Most people in America certainly are more used to the look of a circumcised penis, but that doesn't make an intact penis less attractive. Besides, if it really comes down to appearances, then circumcision is purely a cosmetic procedure. We wouldn't give a baby a nose job or a face lift, would we?
Myth: "Circumcision is important for a boy to feel accepted in society," or "He will be made fun of in the locker room if he isn't circumcised."
Fact: Circumcision is becoming less common (see this page for current statistics). In certain areas of the country, like California, circumcised boys are in the minority (only 33% were circumcised in 2001). As awareness increases about circumcision, and more state Medicaid programs and private insurance companies stop funding it, circumcision is going to become much less common. If, however, a parent is worried that a boy will stand out in school locker rooms, then the parent should explain it before the boy encounters such a situation. With positive reinforcement that he is whole, natural, and healthy, he should be able to handle the situation. Here is a great web page that describes how you can talk to your son about this issue: Why is mine different?. A parent can raise his or her son to appreciate and feel good about his own body. Good parenting is a great alternative to amputation.
Myth: "The foreskin is just extra skin."
Fact: The foreskin is not excess skin. The length of the foreskin is necessary to accommodate full erections, to facilitate the lubricating action so necessary to pleasurable intercourse, and to cover and protect the glans from abrasion and infection. This is a diagram of how the foreskin retracts and moves.
Myth: "Sex with a circumcised penis feels better."
Fact: Male circumcision reduces sexual pleasure for both men and women. The foreskin provides direct pleasurable sensation to the man because of it's erogenous nerve endings, and provides pleasure and comfort to the woman through it's gliding motion. Also, according to surveys, most women who have had sex with both intact and circumcised partners prefer sex with intact men (see Kristen O'Hara's book and Dr. Dean Edell's article on the study contained within the book).
Myth: "Men who aren't circumcised must be strange."
Fact: Many famous and respected men were not circumcised, including Adam (e.g., The Book
of Genesis), William Shakespeare, Beethoven, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, 3 of the
4 Beatles, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It's also interesting to note that every
American President until the mid-20th century was not circumcised, including George
Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Click here to view a gallery of (clothed) celebrities
who are intact.